On the front cover of a journal on spirituality and health there was a picture of three United States ex-servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?’ ‘ I will never forgive them,’ replies the other. The third then comments, ‘Then it seems that they still have you in prison, don’t they?’
Forgiveness has been a topic of conversation high on the world’s agenda over recent years where it has been referred to in the same breath as reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa focused on forgiveness as Desmond Tutu’s book on his work on the Commission, There is no Future without Forgiveness, suggests that forgiveness is key to reconciliation. The question, sometimes addressed, sometimes ignored, hovers around nations trying to reconstruct themselves after war and unrest – Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland – though it is not a word that comes naturally in the political vocabulary. Forgiveness has even been a growth area in the academic world. In the United States, there is an International Forgiveness Institute attached to the University of Wisconsin and the John Templeton Foundation has, with others, started a multimillion dollar campaign for Forgiveness Research.
Forgiveness is not just an international issue, concerned with those ‘out there’ – forgiveness affects each of us personally. When we are wronged, we are called upon to forgive. There are times when each of us needs to be forgiven. Perhaps the hardest task of all is when we need to forgive ourselves and when we need to accept, deep down, that we are forgiven by God. If we cannot believe that we are forgiven, we will find it hard to forgive others and to be enthusiastic about forgiveness further away. But all these forms of forgiveness are related.
Reconciliation cannot be seriously considered without taking forgiveness into account.
Forgiveness and mercy
Forgiveness and mercy are often used synonymously. But there is a difference. Many prayers invoke the mercy of God. ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’ is said at the beginning of the Holy Communion service. ‘May God have mercy upon her soul’ is frequently heard as the dead are brought before God in prayer. Mercy carries the meaning of somebody pardoning an offender, but keeping a tally of the offences. To express it in very general terms, if forgiveness is distinctive of the New Testament, mercy is distinctive of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Behind mercy is an understanding that there is a God of justice who recognises the offence which should be punished: however, instead of punishing, he has mercy. Mercy says, ‘You have committed an offence and I will let you off this time, but just watch out as I will keep your offence in the back of my mind!’
However, the New Testament witnesses to the fact that God offers forgiveness because of the atonement on the cross. St. Paul writes about it in this way, ‘…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’ (II Corinthians 5.19). God’s mercy in Christ becomes forgiveness. Forgiveness says, ‘ I will not allow the memory of your offence to control me or my love for you: I will lay aside your offence as I want a new relationship with you.’ Forgiveness is about renewed relationships and new beginnings. Forgiveness breaks the spiral and enables a fresh start. If reconciliation is being sought, mercy will not do – forgiveness is the only possibility.
There are examples of God’s forgiveness in the Hebrew Scriptures. Through Isaiah, God is speaking words of hope to the people of Israel languishing in exile in Babylon. God is promising to restore them to their beloved land of Israel and to a fresh relationship, even though they had turned against him. Drawing upon passages already used indicating the close relationship between memory and forgiveness, the prophet Isaiah assures the people of God’s forgiveness:
Do not remember the former things, but consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?……. I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’ (43.18-19a,25).
Addressing the same group of people, the prophet Jeremiah says:
No longer shall they teach one other, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.’ (31.34).
However, forgiveness gains its widest and fullest expression in the New Testament where Jesus shows that it has a pivotal role in reconciliation. As such, forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith: it is something distinctively Christian. Christianity does not have monopoly on it, but it has in a unique way made forgiveness a central part of its self understanding. Jesus offers an understanding of forgiveness that was extremely radical in the climate of revenge in which he lived.
The Lord’s prayer (Luke 11.2-4) places human forgiveness in the context of God’s forgiveness. When Christians forgive, it is because God has already forgiven them, ‘And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.’ (11.4) This important development is a reminder that the forgiveness that women and men offer to those who have given offence is a reflection of the forgiveness that God offers to the human family. Two important consequences flow from God’s forgiveness. First, as the Lord’s prayer explicitly indicates, it is important to offer forgiveness to those who have given offence to us in the same way that God’s forgiveness is given. The story of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18.23-35) warns readers of the consequences of not reflecting God’s forgiveness in their lives. Secondly, human forgiveness is grounded in divine forgiveness and it can sometimes be very difficult to grasp this good news. Furthermore, an unwillingness to forgive others may well stem from an inability to accept the forgiveness that God offers. If I do not believe, at a deep level within me, that I am forgiven by God, then it is likely that I will want others to be aware of their sinfulness so that they share the same struggle as me. If I do not believe that I am forgiven, then others being in the same boat will make me feel better.
Overtly acknowledging God’s role in forgiveness will enable it to happen. When, after World War II, a party of West German church leaders first visited Moscow to begin a dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church, the German leaders expressed their sorrow over the horrors inflicted upon the Russian people by the Germans during the war. They asked to be forgiven. During the worship, there were many tears as they all remembered the cruelties and slaughter of the time. Then the Russians said ‘God may forgive you’ and they kissed the crosses of the German church leaders and asked for their blessings.
The Russian Christians were not saying ‘God may forgive you, but we cannot,’ rather they were saying that God will give them the strength to forgive and overcome their traumatic memories. By kissing the crosses and asking for their blessings, they were accepting the German leaders as their leaders. Forgiveness thus forges a way forward and breaks the spiral of vengeance and retribution.